A group of political and corporate leaders announced last week that they will offer a full range of services to help raise stagnant mathematics achievement in the nation’s middle schools.
Achieve, the nonprofit organization established by governors and business executives, said it would design an 8th grade test intended to yield results showing states where they stand on international standards. The project also will provide professional development to help teachers put those standards to use in classrooms, a series of classroom tests designed to measure student progress toward the standards, and a buyer’s guide to textbook and curricular materials that will assist teachers in reaching the standards.
Fourteen states have joined the Mathematics Achievement Partnership and will be the first to get the services that Achieve will produce in a partnership with the College Board. Officials at Achieve and the College Board said they intend for the materials to be available nationally once components of the project are introduced in fall 2002.
The result, the partners hope, will be U.S. 8th graders’ performance in mathematics at a level higher than their showings on an international assessment on which they ranked just slightly above average.
“That’s who we compete against,” Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a co- chairman of Achieve, said at a news conference here last week, referring to other countries. “We like to beat Ohio, but when you define what is really great, you want to beat the world.”
The new project marks the biggest step for Achieve in its five-year history. The organization, which has offices here and in Cambridge, Mass., grew out of the 1996 education summit between governors and business leaders in which participants reaffirmed the standards-and-assessment approach to improving schools. The summit’s leaders formed Achieve to forward their agenda.
Achieve’s $6 million math project promises to redefine what middle school mathematics will become in the 10 states that joined the math partnership in 1999 and the four that signed on recently. The founding participants are Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont, Washington state, and Wisconsin.
California, Georgia, Ohio, and Oregon also have enlisted in the project, Achieve announced last week. As a result, 40 percent of the nation’s middle grades population will be participating in the project when implementation begins.
Similar efforts have been tried before. In the early 1990s, the New Standards project launched a similar effort to transform what is taught in several subjects across the K-12 spectrum.
Achieve chose to focus on middle school mathematics because that is where its members see the greatest need.
In 1995 and again in 1999, American 8th graders scored far below such nations as Singapore, Japan, and South Korea on the math section of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. The 1999 results confirmed that U.S. achievement begins to lag in middle school because the same cohort of 8th graders scored near the top of the world as 4th graders in 1995. (“U.S. Students’ Scores Drop By 8th Grade,” Dec. 13, 2000.) While just about all states have math standards and assessments measuring students’ math achievement, state participants in the Achieve program said they were willing to change course or add a new test because the project offers a test that they can use to compare their students against international standards and get a road map to guide them.
“It will provide us with a good measure of how we are doing compared to other countries,” said Kerry Mazzoni, the California secretary of education.
The initiative also will give states a ready-made testing system that they can use to help comply with an anticipated federal requirement that they assess student progress annually in grades 3-8. President Bush proposed the measure, which is moving through Congress.
Gov. Engler, a Republican, said his state would simply use the new program’s 6th and 7th grade end-of-course tests as the way to gauge students’ middle school progress. He even suggested that the Achieve 8th grade test would replace the state’s current 8th grade math test.
Other states may choose to take similar action, but they also could choose to maintain existing testing programs, Robert B. Schwartz, Achieve’s president, said in an interview.
While some states appear to be excited about joining the project, Achieve’s critics contend that the private group is wielding too much power over states’ curricula and testing programs.
“This means, in all those states, the curriculum will be aligned to what Achieve thinks it should be,” said Susan Ohanian, a Charlotte, Vt.-based education author and a frequent critic of state testing policies. “That’s very dangerous.”
More Than a Test
Two years ago, Achieve set out to produce a series of 8th grade math-test questions for states to incorporate into their own exams. The results would have given participants data to compare achievement across state lines. (“Achieve Planning New Math Test for 8th Grade,” Feb. 3, 1999.)
The project expanded, however, after reviews found that the content of state tests was less rigorous than that of assessments given in other countries.
“That’s when people said: ‘What’s the point of doing that if it’s going to confirm what we know already?’” Mr. Schwartz said.
“We all agreed that a new test alone isn’t going to solve the problem.”
He added that the most attractive feature for states is the new project’s professional-development efforts, which are meant to help teachers learn how to teach internationally competitive academic content.
Achieve envisions professional-development experiences that range from summer workshops to recurring seminars in which teachers can share ideas about how to teach the substance of the standards.
Packaged with the analysis of curriculum materials and the tests that will be available for classroom assessment throughout grades 6-8, schools will have everything they need as they try to raise their students’ achievement, Mr. Schwartz maintained.
“This project isn’t simply: ‘Here’s where we need to get to,’ but this will go a long way to showing how to get there,” he added.
The transformation of the project from a statewide test into a complete package built around the test is an important evolution, according to one business leader.
“I appreciate their recognition of the need for professional development,” said Linda P. Rosen, the senior vice president for education at the National Alliance of Business and a former adviser on math education to then-Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. Without it, Achieve would have been testing students without ever giving teachers the support they needed to help students succeed on the test, she said.
High Price Tag
With the expanded number of services comes $6 million in costs, which Achieve, the College Board, and the states will share.
The coalition has already raised $1.5 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based foundation, and $500,000 from Agilent Technologies Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif., producer of computer-networking software. The balance will be raised through other grants and fees paid by the partnership’s members.
Project officials are circulating a draft of performance standards that define the mathematics that middle school students should know and be able to do. The final version of those standards will be the basis of the 8th grade math test that will be piloted in the 2002-03 school year.
The partnership will begin offering professional development to teachers in the fall of 2002.
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Achieve To Produce Math Package For the Middle Grades